An economist predicts the medal counts for the Vancouver Olympics.

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Feb. 12 2010 9:34 AM

Canada vs. the United States: Who Wins?

An economist predicts the medal counts for the Vancouver Olympics.

The Olympics always offer a great set of human stories, especially as presented by NBC. Which Olympian will draw upon his or her heart-tugging personal story for that extra bit of adrenaline? Who shall choke and who shall be exalted with sponsorships? Who will overcome the obstacles of cold, wind, and pain to post a world-beating time? When you consider all the variables—the intense competition, the milliseconds that can separate third from fourth place, or the wild card of something like skier Lindsey Vonn's injury status—it would seem strange to predict medal performance based largely on economic factors.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

But there's a robust, and surprisingly accurate prediction business among economists for the summer Olympics. (I covered these sets of predictions in 2008 and 2004.) For the Winter Olympics, which feature fewer competitors and many fewer events, the number-crunchers typically put down their keyboards and spreadsheets. All except economist Daniel Johnson, who seems uniquely qualified to prognosticate on such matters. He was born in Canada, teaches at Colorado College, and (as his C.V. notes) is way into curling.

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As Johnson explains, the model he uses is pretty simple. The economist looks at five variables: population, income per capita, climate, political structure, and host-nation advantage. The results are quite intuitive. The bigger a country's population, and the more resources per capita the country has to devote to athletics, the more world-class athletes it is likely to produce. Climate, of course, is a huge factor in the Winter Games. "If you grow up skiing, the chances are you'll be a better skier as an adult," Johnson says. "Even when you control for income, cold countries do better than warmer countries." The political climate factor is somewhat counterintuitive—the shrinking base of nations with one-party rule tend to do quite well in Olympic events. (Think Cuba and China.) Tyranny may not be a competitive advantage in global economics or cultural competitions, but it apparently remains one in global athletic tournaments. Finally, Johnson notes that in the Winter Games, the host nation generally wins about three medals more than might be expected, one of them gold.

Johnson adds that there is one "slush factor" that is more difficult to measure: a nation's sporting culture. In the Summer Olympics, Australia generally punches above its economic weight because the Aussies are a tough, buff, sporting nation. "The same holds true for Norway in the Winter Games," he says.

Johnson's predictions for 2010, which include only those nations expected to win 10 medals or more, can be seen here (PDF). Canada, which typically does well in the Winter Olympics, is expected to ride the host-nation status to a world-leading, 27-medal haul, though only five of them are expected to be gold. The United States is expected to tie Norway for second, with 26 medals, to be followed by the traditional European powers: Austria (25), Sweden (24), Russia (23), and Germany (20). The Unites States, Canada, Austria, and Russia are expected to win roughly the same number of medals they did in 2006.

Drill down, though, and you'll see that the model predicts some significant changes from 2006. The Nordic countries are expected to make big gains: Finland is expected to win 14 (four gold), up from eight (zero gold) in 2006; Sweden's medal haul is expected to nearly double, from 13 in 2006 to 24 this year; and Norway is expected to take home 26 medals, up from 19 in 2006. Another big mystery: Italy, which has fared poorly in population growth, income, and political climate over the past four years, is expected to win 19 medals, up from 11 in 2006. Is Tomba la Bomba coming back?

I'm not precisely sure what accounts for these shifts. One factor boosting Scandinavia's stock is the stability of the nations' economies in recent years. Some of these changes can also be explained by a recalibration of Johnson's model. Essentially, he filtered in the fact that Nordic and Italian athletes have done well in recent Olympics (in part because of the home-field advantage afforded by the recent games in Turin and Lillehammer).

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